India's advertising monitor asks viewers to speak up with new digital drive

Illustration by Binay Sinha
India’s advertising monitor is stepping up its campaign to scrub digital platforms clean with a fresh initiative starting on Friday that encourages audiences to report objectionable ads.

#ChupNaBaitho, a digital campaign by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), is part of several initiatives planned by the self-regulatory body for 2021.

The three-month pilot will focus on New Delhi and Mumbai and mainly target finance portals and technology sites. It will include social media posts and a call to action explaining to consumers when and how to report advertisements that are offensive, misleading, make fake promises and push harmful products, et al.

“If it works well, we’ll look at extending it to other cities and maybe even mainline media in future,” said Subhash Kamath, chairman, ASCI.

Between 2018 and 2020, 9,283 direct complaints were reported against 1,906 ads. Around 57 per cent of these were reported in 2018-2019 by consumers.

In 2019-2020, ASCI received 4,683 direct complaints against 662 ads. These were in addition to a large number of suo motu complaints registered by the council.

“One of the things we need to do constantly is make consumers aware of the fact that if they find anything misleading or offensive, they don’t need to keep quiet. They can reach out to us and we’ll adjudicate,” Kamath adds.

Kamath points out that categories such as education, where jobs promises are galore, and particularly the unorganised drugs sector falling under the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, come under the scanner a lot. Sectors such as FMCG are also prone to making misleading claims in ads.

In the wake of the pandemic, many used Covid-19 as a reference to claim efficiency of their products. This prompted ASCI to come out with guidelines on the substantiations required and urging advertisers not to take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities.
Of late, the gaming industry has also grown rapidly and made ASCI question its intent: Is it encouraging people to gamble a lot more? Late last year, ASCI also issued a set of guidelines for gaming brands.

“In social media, the lines between advertising and content is blurring,” says Kamath, adding that the council is also working with influencers to come out with guidelines for them. The council also offers advisory services for advertisers so that they can consult it ahead of campaigns. Advertisers as well as many celebrities, who are liable to be penalised under the Consumer Protection Act, reach out to ASCI seeking its advice as a form of due diligence.

In the year ahead, Kamath says the council will continue to focus on five priority areas.

The first is working closely with the government, including the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Central Consumer Protection Authority, the Ministry of AYUSH and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

“The second priority is to look at technology and how we can transform within a couple of months so that people can reach out to ASCI more easily, members can access past cases, and processes of adjudication, deliberation and response time can become faster.”

The third area is new media, with a focus on evolving guidelines; fourth is its outreach initiatives that aim to embrace more consumers including through thought leadership discussions such as gender sensitivity in advertising and use of children as influencers; and lastly, advisory services that include a plan to reboot ASCI’s e-learning programme to help everyone understand guidelines better.

The latest digital campaign, Kamath adds, is part of ASCI’s outreach initiatives.

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